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Affordable Solar Power for Low-Income Families in the USA

Avatar for Hatham Al-Shabibi
Published on 07/18/2019 in
Updated 11/08/2019
Affordable housing unit in California: Ready for low-income solar panels

In short: Solar panels aren’t just for the well-off. If you qualify as low-income, there are programs available to help you afford solar panels depending on where you live. We’ve compiled a summary of the most inclusive low-income solar programs around the country, and instructions on how to apply.

We at Solar Power Rocks talk a lot about paying for solar panels, and all the ways they save you money in the long run – if you can afford the cost. But solar shouldn’t be exclusively for people who can throw down 20 G’s on a shiny new installation—part of the promise of solar power is that it can reduce costs for a very long time for the people who can least afford to pay for electricity.

This article is our first step in covering affordable solar programs available to folks around the country who can most benefit from the promise of free energy for life.

We partnered with Shawn Campbell, a policy analyst based in Portland, Oregon, to help us create a database of available low-income solar programs and review them for efficacy and best practices. This first article gives a quick snapshot of all the major programs around the US; future work will cover each program in more detail.

First, here are some general definitions and guidelines that generally apply to low-income solar programs:

What makes someone “low-income”? What other things should I know?

Most solar programs designed to make panels more affordable for low-income homeowners use Area Median Income (AMI) to determine if a family is low-income. The AMI is interchangeable with the term “income limit area.”

The AMI is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and, in short, determines eligibility for affordable housing and other programs by comparing a family’s income to the median income where they live. It changes based on how many people live in the household.

Most solar programs, like the Single-Family Affordable Solar Housing Program (SASH)in California, set an income requirement of 80% or lower than the AMI to qualify.

Curious to see if you’re low-income? Check this tool out. You can select your state and city, and the site will calculate what low-income means in your area in real numbers.

We selected Multnomah County, Oregon, where this article was written (Oregon just passed a low-income solar program in June 2019). For a family of four, an income of $70,300 is 80% of the area’s median income of $87,900:

Oregon Low-Income Solar Calculator

Another metric used to determine if a family is low-income is the Department of Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines tool. The numbers you read about in the news usually come from this source. Colorado’s Rooftop Low Income Program and Minnesota’s Xcel program use the Poverty Guidelines to determine eligibility. The Poverty Guidelines are not to be confused with Poverty Thresholds, the latter of which is used to calculate the Guidelines. A family of four makes $25,750 or less per year to qualify as low-income under the Guidelines.

Affordable housing

Some solar programs, like California’s SASH, require the family live in affordable housing (CA’s definition). Here’s a national rundown of what affordable housing means.

Do I have to own my home?

In most cases, yes. We note which programs have a home ownership requirement.

A note on Environmental Justice Areas in Illinois and the Disadvantaged Community Designation in California

These two states have an extra wrinkle when it comes to determining who qualifies for affordable, low-income solar programs.

In Illinois, an Environmental Justice Area is determined by the Illinois Power Agency’s Long-Term Renewable Resources Procurement Plan, and considers multiple factors:

  • Pollution exposure indicators
  • Locations of toxic chemicals in nearby areas
  • Sensitive population factors
  • Socioeconomic factors, such as stress and difficult access to housing

You can access an online map of environmental justice areas in Illinois here.

In California, a Disadvantaged Community Designation is a program established in 2012 requiring that 25% of the proceeds from California’s trade-and-cap program be devoted to improving environmental issues (and increasing use of renewables) in the state’s communities most burdened by public health, housing, and economic crises. The link above provides more detail on how California maintains its calculations.

You can access an online map of disadvantaged community designations here.

Are there affordable solar programs for seniors?

In most cases, if your income is coming from social security and/or 401K, and that total is 80% or lower than your area’s median income, you qualify for low-income solar programs. We wrote a great article on things to consider if you’re a senior wanting solar panels.

Existing low-income solar programs for single family homes

California state flag

California Single Family Affordable Homes Program (SASH)

The SASH program subsidizes the installation of solar panels for low income single family homes to the tune of $3,000 per installed kW, up to a maximum of 5.0 kW. The program is administered by the non-profit GRID Alternatives, which also helps fund the remaining unsubsidized cost of solar panels and provides solar installation training. To be eligible, you must own and live in your own home, have a household income that is 80% or below the area median income, and live in a home that is defined as affordable housing.

To apply: You can find further information via the California Public Utilities Commission and GRID Alternatives. The SASH program will expire at the end of 2021.

The majority of SASH program projects include a private third party in order to take advantage of the Federal Investment Tax Credit (this sunsets starting in 2020). In these cases, the homeowner technically does not own the panels, but does still reap the benefits and is contractually protected from personal liability. As part of this type of agreement, the homeowner agrees to pay GRID Alternatives 50% of their electric bill savings, but is not legally required to do so.

California Disadvantaged Communities Single Family Solar Homes Program (DAC-SASH)

The DAC-SASH program is exactly the same as the SASH program except that it includes further restrictions to ensure program funds go to the communities most in need. To qualify, home owners must live in one of the top 25 percent most disadvantaged communities as identified by the CalEnviroScreen and meet the requirements of the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) program.

To apply: You can find further information via GRID Alternatives. The DAC-SASH program will expire at the end of 2030.

Colorado state flag

Colorado Rooftop Low Income Program

The Colorado Energy Office (CEO) subsidizes the installation of solar panels for low income single family homes via the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). To be eligible, applicants must own and live in their own home and have a household income that is 200% or below of the federal poverty level. The installation of solar must also be shown to create a net benefit above cost as assessed by the CEO.

To apply: You can find further information via the Colorado Energy Office or via a local weatherization agency.

Connecticut state flag

Connecticut Green Bank Low Income Residential Solar Incentive Program

The Connecticut Green Bank, in conjunction with the private firm PosiGen Solar, leases solar panels to low and moderate income homes via its Low Income Residential Solar Incentive Program, providing access to solar power with no upfront costs. The program works by the state paying an incentive to PosiGen for power produced, allowing the firm to provide lower cost lease terms. To be eligible, applicants must have a household income that is 100% or below the area median income.

To apply: You can find further information via the Connecticut Green Bank and PosiGen Solar.

Hawaii state flag

Hawaii Green Energy Market Securitization On-Bill Repayment Program (GEM)

Hawaii’s GEM program is unique in that though it does not directly target low income households, it is set up in a way to benefit them. The program offers fixed rate loans for solar panels and energy efficiency projects which are paid back in monthly installments as part of the household’s electric bill. Rather than using common measures of credit, eligibility is based upon on-time payment of electric bills over the past twelve months. Both homeowners and renters are eligible and the loan obligation is attached to the household electric meter, not the residents, making it easily transferable. The minimum loan size for residential projects is $5,000 and they must result in a 10% utility bill savings including the added loan repayment fee.

To apply: Further information can be found via the Hawaii Green Infrastructure Authority.

Illinois state flag

Illinois Solar For All Program

The Illinois Solar For All Program incentivizes installers to target lower income households when selling and leasing solar panels, creating cost savings which can be passed on to the consumer. As part of the program, participants are guaranteed no upfront costs, no ongoing costs or fees that exceed 50% of the value of the energy produced, and other consumer protections. To be eligible, applicants must have a household income 80% or below the area median income or live within a designated environmental justice community.

To apply: Further information can be found via the Illinois Power Agency or via contacting an approved vendor.

Massachusetts state flag

Massachusetts Solar Renewable Target Program (SMART)

The SMART program incentivizes the installation of solar panels by paying owners an incentive rate for each kWh of electricity produced, with a small bonus incentive paid for low income property owners.

To apply: Further information can be found via the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources or via contacting local solar installation companies.

Read more about how the Massachusetts SMART Solar program works.

Massachusetts Solar Loan Support Program

The Massachusetts Solar Loan Support program provides three types of incentives to support low and moderate income households in getting affordable loans to install solar panels. The incentives include reducing loan principal by up to 30%, reducing loan interest rates by up to 1.5%, and providing a loan loss guarantee to lenders for residents with bad credit.

To apply: Further information can be found via the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources or via contacting local solar installation companies.

Minnesota state flag

Minnesota Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards Program

As part of its Solar Rewards Program, the public utility Xcel Energy offers added incentives for income qualified customers. These include subsidizing the cost of solar panels up to $2,000 per installed kW and providing an incentive of $0.07 per kWh produced by the system. To be eligible, applicants must have a household income either 50% or below the state median income or 200% or below the federal poverty line.

To apply: Further information can be found via Xcel Energy.

New York Affordable Solar Program

The New York Affordable Solar program incentivizes installers to target lower income households when selling and leasing solar panels, creating cost savings which can be passed on to the consumer. To be eligible, applicants must have a household income 80% or below the area median income.

To apply: Further information can be found via the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority or via contacting an approved vendor.

Washington DC flag

Washington D.C. Solar For All Program

The DC Solar For All Program pays for the installation of solar panels on single family households via several programs, including Solar Works DC which also includes training in solar installation, and partnerships. To be eligible, applicants must have a household income that is 80% or below the area median income. Under the program, homeowners do not own the solar panels, but are leasing them at no cost, receiving 100% of the energy produced by the system.

To apply: Further information can be found via the DC Department of Energy and Environment.

Next up: In-depth information on low-income solar programs in California!

Last modified: November 8, 2019

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